Tracy Chapman won her first CMA this year. It only took 35 years. And a Luke Combs cover of her song, “Fast Car.”
Grateful for the recognition.
Graceful during the long lags between receiving any.
Tracy Chapman knows a thing (or 35) about gratitude.
In 1988, when “Fast Car” was released as the first single off of her self-titled debut, it didn’t do anything.
Not crickets, but she wasn’t rapping, she wasn’t doing R&B, and she was a woman of color doing her version of American pop-folk. What chart does that fit on? What record store section or radio playlist or marketing category are you selling that to?
She found herself booked to play Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday party/tribute concert to promote the album a few months in, buried in between all sorts of overshadowing superstars. The concert was live and at Wembley. The major acts and anti-apartheid cause helped the concert to reach an estimated 600 million viewers worldwide.
Stevie Wonder was about to take the stage for his “surprise” spot. He had a 25 minute set. It was going to be huge. And then his keyboard glitched. Something about the disk drive malfunctioned and without it – he said he couldn’t play.
So Stevie refuses to go on. The clock is ticking. Imagine you’re running the event – what do you do?
You find the easiest person to fill the time. You need minimal staging/support. You need it FAST.
You need… how about Tracy Chapman? She’s right there. So you put her on.
Chapman took to the stage in Stevie Wonder’s time slot, with nothing but a guitar and a lone microphone stand.
She played “Fast Car.” The stadium got strangely quiet as she worked her way through it. I’ll put the video below. Consider everything that happened to put her in that spot at that moment while you watch. Her subtle nervousness, the crowd’s growing interest – it’s transcendent.
And the funny thing about 600 million people hearing your incredible song is – they’ll want to buy records. Or tapes or whatever. And after her last-second “we need you to fill this time” appearance, they did.
“Fast Car” went on to chart and win a number of MTV awards in 1989. The labels had trouble marketing her and the song before the concert. But after the Mandela moment, the song took care of itself.
It’s a song of struggle. A song of escape. A song of promise, that if you just get a shot…
There’s no predicting the future. All we can do is make great art. And see what the universe has in store for us next.
I love this story so much. There’s a reason artists keep reviving this song. There’s a reason I keep going back to replay this concert video.